Do you like cycling? I do like cycling, but it’s been a while now since I have stopped doing it regularly. But Marika, an adventurous wanderess from Latvia, really loves cycling. And she loves traveling. So probably I will not surprise you saying that right now she is cycling solo across South America. Yes, you read that right. She is cycling alone. And she is planning to cross the whole continent.
But it all started almost 2 years ago. When Marika flew from Latvia to San Francisco and bought a bicycle.
Read on to learn more about long distance cycling and cycling solo. About the ups and downs, that you are going through, when undertaking such an adventure. And, who knows, maybe in a year or two you will be already on the road, camping somewhere in a desert or on top of the mountain.
Please, tell us a little bit about yourself!
I am a 30 years old graphic designer from Liepaja, Latvia. Some time ago I chose to move and live on a bicycle for an uncertain amount of time – and so here I am, nearly 2 years later (22 months to be exact), I am still pedalling. I started this adventure of a life-time in San Francisco, California and I aim for Ushuaia, Argentina – the southernmost town in the world.
Before I set on this trip, I was living in Riga for a while, was working on my freelance projects and doing a bunch of other interesting things. I was quite happy and satisfied with my life. But there always was an itch, a feeling that I haven’t done something. That “something” is this trip. I couldn’t fully devote myself to anything, because I knew I want to challenge and throw myself out of the comfort zone and go on a long distance bicycle trip.
I love that point “zero” – when all the roads are open and you have to choose the direction. At the beginning it might seem frightening to lose the ground under your feet, but after the first step is made, it’s surprising how much one can learn about oneself and the world, as well as live the life with such an intensity.
Where are you now? How do you like it there?
I am now in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, which is 12th country on my trip. I’m excited to be in a new country, and Chile so far seems to be very different from the rest of Latin America I’ve visited already. It is more like Europe. I am also excited to be in the Atacama desert – one of the driest places on earth, with clear, starry nights, lunar landscapes and no trees around (well, I miss the trees..). It’s so different from my homeland.
I just finished a very challenging route through southwest Bolivia. I crossed the famous Salar de Uyuni (the biggest salt desert in the world), as well as a very remote highland plateau (altiplano) region called Lipez. It was the hardest ride I have ever done. The roads are not really roads there – just sandy, sometimes rocky jeep tracks and bumpy washboards; add freezing winds (headwinds, of course) and high altitudes (4000 – 5000 meters above sea level) and you will have a perfect recipe for a very adventurous ride.
It was very demanding, especially on a fully loaded bicycle with relatively skinny tires (700×38”), but seeing the vast landscapes, colourful lagunas, flamingos, geysers, camping among giant volcanoes and just being out there in the wilderness was very rewarding.
How much stuff do you have with you?
I carry around 40 kilos of luggage on my bicycle. Sometimes more – if I have to carry food and water for several days. I need to be self-sufficient to be able to work, to be able to sleep nearly anywhere and to cook my own food. So I carry a tent, a sleeping bag, a mattress, a stove, a laptop and other necessities. I’ve tried to reduce everything to the minimum, but I love to have some luxury/comfort items, like a little grater and Italian coffee maker in my “kitchen” or an extra pair of shoes for days off the bike.
My bicycle setup is as follows – 4 panniers and one dry bag on the rear rack – a bedroom bag, a closet bag, an office bag, a kitchen bag and a garage bag (tools and spare parts for the bicycle), plus a small handlebar bag with most important things which I call “the brain bag” and always take with me.
I know some long distance cyclists like to cycle all day. How much do you usually cycle?
The average daily distance could be around 60 – 70 kilometers – sometimes it’s less, sometimes it’s more. It depends on many factors – what is the weather like, in which direction the wind is blowing, and very much on the gradient.
For me, the optimal cycling time is about 5 – 6 hours each day, so that I have some energy left for sightseeing, doing errands, working on my graphic design projects or finding the best camping spot, setting up the tent and cooking dinner. Sometimes I end up riding for 10 – 12 hours – usually it happens when there is no safe place around to camp and I have to go to the next town or village to look for an accommodation.
Sometimes I also start riding at 5 – 6 AM, because it’s getting either very hot or windy by the midday. When it is cold, I wait for the first sun rays to warm up my tent and only then I crawl out of my sleeping bag and start the day by making a cup of coffee. There is nothing better than a hot cup of coffee with a picturesque landscape in front of you!
Did you cycle a lot back in Latvia?
Back home I was on a bicycle every day! No matter the weather and season – sunshine, rain or snow. One of my friends once said that it seems that I don’t separate from my two wheeled friend even at night and I must be taking my bicycle into the bed as well!
Apart from daily commutes I also have done many bicycle trips in Latvia – once me and my sister attempted to cross the country from East to West in 3 days (the headwinds beat us and we finished 80 kilometers short); there were several times when I cycled from Riga to my hometown to visit my mom, and many other, shorter trips.
How and when did an idea about cycling solo across South America come to you?
The dream about cycling South America and especially Patagonia I had for a very, very long time. Although I have done a couple of longer trips in Scandinavia – once I cycled from the Arctic Circle all the way North until the road finished; another time I cycled Aland islands; then a little bit of Southern Sweden and Finland. However, there always was this big dream of exploring the wilderness of far away lands.
Before the trip I was reading lots of adventure books and other cyclist’s blogs, and the itch just grew bigger and bigger. Latin America was also my choice because of practical reasons – as an EU citizen I don’t need any visas here, the border crossings are easy, there is only one major language – Spanish (I do not plan to visit Brasil during this trip) and it is possible to cycle all the length of the continent (except for the Darien Gap between Panama and Colombia).
I didn’t know any Spanish before the trip (except “gracias” and “hola”), I learned the basics of the language on the road – and I’m still learning.
Also the idea of reaching the End of the World (as they call it) using only my own power seemed appealing – I truly believe that travelling by bicycle is the best way to experience the world. I never thought about doing it in any other way than on a bicycle. It is environmentally friendly, and this way you often end up in non-touristic places you would probably never visit, and meet locals you would probably never meet if traveling by car or public transport.
Weren’t you thinking about finding a travel companion or companions?
Among my crazy friends none was that crazy to come and join me on such a trip without any time frame. I am also working while travelling, which means cycling for some time and then stopping for some time. And it is not something for everyone.
As much as I enjoy travelling alone, I enjoy travelling in a group. There are advantages and disadvantages to both models. I enjoy having a travel partner – it is definitely easier to make daily decisions, it is good to have some company and share the experiences, either good or bad. Having someone around is invaluable when you get sick as well. Also I believe that through conversations and collaboration one can learn more about oneself, through other people – they are like a reflection.
But then again – travelling alone you have to deal with everything by yourself, whether it’s getting food, finding accommodation, figuring out the right direction or coping with being homesick. You have to get yourself together when you’re having a bad day. You have to figure out how to not get crazy in the middle of nothingness.
You learn more quickly to find a solution in extraordinary situations. You don’t depend on someone’s riding pace or where he or she wants to cycle. You can make your own decisions.
Although I started this trip alone, I have met many other cyclists and with some of them I have also cycled together for some parts. For example, in Mexico I was riding together with Daniel for 3 months, and a huge part of Latin America I have covered together with Cristina from Spain. It was invaluable to share a part of my trip with other people.
Now I am alone on the road again.
Speaking about your travel experience prior this trip – did you always travel with a bicycle?
Not always. Sometimes, for an instance, I would buy a one-way ticket to somewhere and then I would find my way back home by other means of transportation.
Some time ago I was living in Romania for a year as an exchange student and apart from studies, I had some time to travel around. I did a lot of hitch-hiking through Romania and neighboring countries. It was in fact there when I first encountered a term “bicycle touring”, as one of the exchange students – a Lithuanian guy – decided to go back home on a bicycle. Then I thought – as much as I like cycling, I could never do such a trip. And alone? No way!
Even though I had been in quite a lot of places abroad before, this solo cycling adventure is my first time overseas.
How long it took for you to prepare for this cycling trip?
It took me nearly two years to prepare for this trip. Mostly mentally. I didn’t believe that I could do it alone and for such a long time. When I convinced myself that the time will never seem right and I just have to do it or daydream about it for the rest of my life, then camee the pragmatic part – selling/giving away my stuff, moving out of the apartment and taking few boxes of what’s left to my mom’s place. It wasn’t that difficult to organize my work, as I was working mostly from home anyway.
Regarding the bicycle and equipment – I decided to get a new bicycle in San Francisco as it was quite expensive to take it with me from Europe. The equipment – panniers, tent, sleeping bag, stove etc – I had already gathered in previous years when I did other trips and outdoor wanderings.
3 of the best moments of your cycling adventure
There have been so many ups and downs! I’ve realized that the best and most important thing about this and, to my mind, any trip is people. It’s all about the people. You can be in the most beautiful place in the world, but if the people are not welcoming, nice or respectful, there is no reason to be there. People are the source of inspiration, help and collaboration, I’ve had countless great and heartwarming encounters along the way.
There was a time when I was in Mexico and I felt very alone and mentally down. I really missed a good friend to talk to. And the next thing I know – I am in a wonderful house, having a beer with an amazing American couple and we are talking about life and other silly things, like old friends.
Once, after a grueling and tiring climb there was a car that stopped at the roadside and, as I slowly approached the car, the driver was handing me a can of beer saying “I thought you might want it after this hard climb”. Not to mention the fact that it was literally in the middle of nowhere and only few cars passed by that day.
I love these unplanned/sudden encounters and to experience how the Universe brings people together and crosses their paths. In this trip I experience that very often and very intensely, and every time it is such an amazing energy recharge!
Of course, nature also inspires and creates amazing memories. I brightly remember that day when I saw the Grand Canyon – such a stunning masterpiece by the Nature. Or that windy sunset and colorful sunrise in the middle of Salar de Uyuni – I have never wild camped in such a unique place, so vast and exposed, but so safe at the same time.
Not all the days are sunshine, tailwinds and restless holidays. Cycling and being on the road for a long time is a hard work!
Of course, I miss home, my family and friends a lot. Sometimes it’s just a bad day when nothing goes right – puncture after puncture, headwinds or encounters with dishonest people. Or when you have done hundred uphills and there is one more left, and your energy reserves are over… But you never know what is behind that last uphill – there might be the best camp spot or the nicest downhill. It depends how you look at things.
As I read somewhere, “uphills are just downhills in reverse”.
You said you are working while traveling – please, tell us a little bit more about it! Did you also save money prior the trip?
I had some savings before the trip, but they are long gone. Although I am trying to live as cheaply as possible, I couldn’t save enough prior the trip. So I continue working.
I am a freelancer (graphic designer), and basically I just need a Wi-Fi connection and electricity to work. I have had my office in various places – in countless coffee shops, hostels, rented apartments, parks and even in the tent. It is not always easy to adapt to different work spaces and the Wi-Fi in Latin America can be tricky, but it’s doable and so far it has worked out very well.
Anything else you would love to say to others thinking of taking on similar adventure?
If you have an itch of doing an adventure on a bicycle – start scratching it! Any bicycle as long as it moves forward will do the job. All it takes is to make the first step, which is definitely the hardest – afterwards everything falls into the right place.
Just hop on a bicycle and start pedalling, the rest you will figure out later. Start with short few day trips, there are adventures just around the corner. And pretty soon you will realize if a longer tour and this lifestyle is for you or not. And if it didn’t work out, you can always go back home, but at least you would have tried.
For more travel photos and stories from the road follow Marika on Instagram – @mlatsone!
Do you have some interesting story that you want to share? Send a message to us! Check out also all of our previous interviews with travelers!
Author: Kaspars Misins
Kaspars is a long term traveler and travel blogger from Latvia. He loves going on long walks, reading non fiction books and spending time outdoors. Together with his girlfriend Una they are traveling – volunteering – working abroad since 2013. On WeAreFromLatvia.com they share their experience and things learned along the way.